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Facebook introduced the Trending Topics feature in 2014 to capture a list of topics and hashtags that have recently spiked in popularity. Photo: AP
Facebook introduced the Trending Topics feature in 2014 to capture a list of topics and hashtags that have recently spiked in popularity. Photo: AP

The reality behind Facebook’s Trending Topics

Tech blog Gizmodo reports that Facebook routinely suppressed news stories of interest to conservative readers from the 'trending' section

New Delhi: Facebook Inc. is in the eye of a storm for its influential trending news section, which has come under severe scrutiny after tech blog Gizmodo reported on 9 May that the social media company routinely suppressed news stories of interest to conservative readers.

All hell broke loose after this report. To put this in context, Trending Topics is the small box that appears on the upper right side of a Facebook page or when a user taps the search bar in the mobile app that lists news topics that are most popular on Facebook. The social networking company introduced the Trending Topics feature in 2014 to capture a list of topics and hashtags that have recently spiked in popularity on Facebook, with links to different news articles about them. The report suggested that Facebook manipulates the trending topics.

Additionally, Gizmodo’s report details how the contractors who worked on this section were instructed to artificially “inject" selected stories into the trending news module, even if they weren’t popular enough to warrant inclusion, which means that even those stories that were not trending were included. This is in stark contrast to what the social networking company has been claiming all this while, which is that Trending news shows you topics that have recently become popular on Facebook and are based on a number of factors, including engagement, timeliness, Pages you’ve liked and your location.

The controversy was further fuelled when the Guardian leaked documents that revealed how Facebook relies not on algorithms but on news editors to determine what the trending stories will be for the approximately 1.65 billion people who visit the social network every day.

As these news reports went viral on the Internet, Facebook officials responded, not once, but thrice over. First, it was Facebook vice-president of search Tom Stocky, who wrote a long Facebook post addressing reports alleging that Facebook contractors manipulated Trending Topics to suppress stories of interest to conservatives. He wrote: “We take these reports extremely seriously, and have found no evidence that the anonymous allegations are true. Facebook is a platform for people and perspectives from across the political spectrum. There are rigorous guidelines in place for the review team to ensure consistency and neutrality. These guidelines do not permit the suppression of political perspectives. Nor do they permit the prioritization of one viewpoint over another or one news outlet over another. These guidelines do not prohibit any news outlet from appearing in Trending Topics."

Soon after, the company published another update about the process and guidelines that govern Trending. Written by Justin Osofsky, vice-president, global operations, the detailed post explains how trending topics are surfaced by algorithms, reviewed by the trending topics team and then personalized for each user via an algorithm that relies on a number of factors. He also reiterated that company guidelines do not permit the suppression of political perspectives, clearly denying media reports that have alleged this.

The final word, however, came from Facebook founder and chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg, who used his Facebook page to clarify the company’s position. “This week, there was a report suggesting that Facebook contractors working on Trending Topics suppressed stories with conservative viewpoints. We take this report very seriously and are conducting a full investigation to ensure our teams upheld the integrity of this product. We have found no evidence that this report is true. If we find anything against our principles, you have my commitment that we will take additional steps to address it."

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